A Performer Reflects

By Karl Tiedemann


“An actor,” Edwin Booth is supposed to have said, “is a sculptor who carves in snow.” This is true, to some degree, of all live performance. But improvisation has to be the most impermanent of theatrical forms. After an improv show, one is conscious that this particular combination can never again be repeated. Never will this same group of improvisers face exactly this audience and have to deal with precisely this list of suggestions…

On a bad night, you may be tempted to add, “And thank goodness for that!” But if it’s been a “hot” show, you may wish you could bottle it and take it home.


Most nights, of course, fall in between. And as I set out to record one randomly selected Sunday Night Improv show (for posterity, for the participants, and for myself), I had no way of knowing what sort of experience it would be. (I was an observer not a performer on this evening.)

The Beginning

The show had a small audience and got off to a muted start. The first improv was a “blues” song, and the suggestion was “I got your back, babe.” Jeff Clinkenbeard pulled off what might have been the most clever verse, which included the lines, “I’d tell you I got my arms but I can’t/Got someone else’s spleen, got your back, babe/And that’s the weirdest transplant.”

After a parody of Jeopardy (one category was “Fish,” and to the answer “Carp,” a player offered: “What my mother does all the time”), came a scene spoken entirely in gibberish. This is an improv form in which no known language can be spoken. Communication depends entirely on tone, attitude, and physicality. A scene like this can be nerve-wracking to perform in front of a paying audience, and the temptation to “cheat” and use English is always there. On this occasion, one performer referred to Tom Soter as “Comrade Stalin” (the scene being set in Russia). From that point onwards, the improv went very well, with Uncle Joe facing a beleaguered peasant couple and a rebellious soldier. But it was not a pure gibberish scene.

Next up was “Room 227,” a game in which four couples perform four scenes in the same “hotel room” setting on four consecutive days. The suggestion at the beginning of each improv was for an emotion. Given “regret,” Tom Carrozza played a bridegroom who regretted that a perfectly happy engagement had to end with a wedding. He and his new wife (Miriam Sirota) worked themselves into such a gloom that Clinkenbeard was able to open the next scene with a line of dialogue about how he had found two people in the bathroom who had seemed to have killed themselves.

Tense Moments

The hotel apparently had an inadequate cleaning staff, since the two dead bodies were still present (albeit offstage) during a very clever third scene: Larry Bell played a psychotherapist who somehow uses the presence of the corpses, along with selected Old Testament Bible readings, to make his Jewish patient (Chris Hoyle) see “how horrible it was for the Jewish people in the past and how good we have it now!” (One interesting point is that neither the performers nor the audience knew that Bell was a doctor until the bit was more than half over; it was the sort of mid-scene discover characteristic of good improv.)

In the final scene, we saw (1) a tense moment when Soter hit Greg Pak and accidentally knocked off his glasses, (2) the brief return of Clinkenbeard’s character (a strange Jamaican man named Liechtenstein), and (3) good use of what we might call the Old Rubber Mask Bit, in which a desperate improviser alters the reality of a scene by ripping off a phony rubber mask and revealing himself to be someone else entirely. (This is the improviser’s equivalent of “in case of emergency, break glass.”)

A session of the McLaughlin Group parody followed. The format is simple: the show is set in a pre-20th Century time period and discusses a past event as though it were current. This time the topic was The Boston Tea Party, and Pak scored points by taking a stance of ecological outrage towards the pollution of the harbor. Bell deftly illustrated the invaluable comic device of the reincorporation when he hearkened back to a reference he had made earlier in Jeopardy.

The first half of the show ended with a session of “Can You Sing This?” in which a group of brave improvisers make up songs based on suggested titles and musical styles. Tonight’s titles ranged from “Infertility” to “Red Chinese Rhapsody.”

One interesting incident occurred during this sequence: a lady in the audience called out the suggested title, “Hollywood is My Beat.” Emcee Tom Soter accepted it, adding genially, “Thank you, Mrs. Walter Winchell” (in a reference to the newspaper columnist whose “beat” was Hollywood). This got a pretty fair laugh, but the woman unsmilingly shot back, “Ms.!” Which only goes to show that even if you’re doing comedy, and even if you’re referring to a hypothetical, non-existent character from the 1940s, if you’re performing near Columbia University, you’d better watch yourself!

By intermission, the audience had increased substantially. There were now at least 25 people, and there was a palpable boost in energy as the second half began. To kick things off, Hoyle did his Flamenco guitar song (created in his N.Y. Improv Squad days), accompanied by former Squad mates Soter and Clinkenbeard. The suggestion was “brain surgeon” and featured couplets like this one from Clinkenbeard: “Down in the brain, near the vortex/I signed my name in his cerebral cortex!”) And Soter brought things home with a clever couplet involving both Dan Quayle and Al Gore.

Don’t Apologize

A session of movie review parodies followed, which was neither notably good nor bad. Next up was the good old “Conducted Story with Scenes” form. This night’s tale was set in 18th Century London and concerned Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Boswell was played as a drooling, misshapen village idiot. Most historians do not support this interpretation. Not that this made the wild story, concerning salamanders and a long-lost mother, any less funny. It just demonstrated an improv truism: if you don’t know about a subject, make a choice anyway. In the end, if you do it with commitment it will probably turn out all right.

The show drew to a close with a fast-paced “soap opera” parody, a lively round of the guessing game “Clue,” and an ingenious reprise of the opening song form in which the players had to sing about a memorable moment from the night. “This is the only improv tonight you’ll see,” sang Bell, “unless, of course, you come home with me.”

And so ended another “jam,” better than some, not as good as others. Rachel Kramer, a performer, felt that the evening underscored the primary rule of improv: “Whatever it is you’re doing, do it fully. If you’re going to sing, sing. But if you’re going to be apologetic, don’t do it on the audience’s time.”